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New order picking systems ensures premier league status

20 November 2017

Back in the 1980s the Batson family started a business in their home in Cheshire decorating T-shirts for the local souvenir market.  As the business grew, substantial clothing brands started to come on board, and Ralawise is now a leading B2B dot-com supplier for a wide range of clothing across Europe with sales exceeding £100 million.

Around 4,500 product lines and over nine million items are in stock at any time, and the portfolio includes over 100 brands, with many high-profile names. Excellent customer service alongside value-for-money at all price points has been a core principle throughout the last 30 years and has ensured good relationships with customers, both wholesale and retail.

By 2010 the company’s growth was putting extreme pressure on the central warehouse near Chester, where orders were picked by staff using an almost exclusively manual process. It was decided that the size of the warehouse and the manual picking system in use was compromising potential for growth and the quality of service for customers, so the opportunity was taken to buy a larger warehouse and invest in modern order-picking technologies that would resolve both issues.

At the heart of the new building is a highly automated order-picking system designed and installed by Nottingham-based Gebhardt European Conveyor Systems, that has replaced the labour-intensive manual order picking previously used. Now all picking staff work within a short distance of a conveyor that automatically forwards each carton or plastic tote between appropriate picking zones and then finally to a despatch area. The system has a potential maximum throughput of 720 totes or cartons an hour, which has increased staffing efficiency.  It also delivers products from bulk storage to replenish the live picking shelves as required.

Most orders are picked into cardboard cartons that are automatically erected and labelled at an order start area on the ground floor. Small orders for despatching in bags are picked into plastic totes, to which bar-code labels are also applied. The bar-codes replicate the order number on an accompanying printed manifest listing the items required.

From the induct station bar-code readers automatically direct the cartons or totes to the appropriate zones where the products required are located. A voice picking system uses headsets to enable staff to find the products ordered quickly before releasing the carton back on to the powered conveyor for onward travel. Cartons and totes are carried between the four levels in the building in compact elevators that require much less space than typical belt inclines. The layout of the picking zones is replicated on all the levels so that staff can be deployed flexibly with no loss of efficiency.

Once an order in a carton has been completed, it travels to the despatch area. Most cartons go directly through an automatic folding, compacting and lidding procedure, eliminating the need for void fill to be manually added, minimising the cube of the parcels and reducing delivery costs. There is provision for cartons to be checked and re-packed before travelling on to be sealed. Totes with small orders divert to a separate area for the items to be packed or bagged, with empty totes being returned to the induct area on a separate conveyor.

CUSTOMER PROFILE

  • Major UK-based supplier of leisure clothing
  • Over 100 brands and 4500 product lines
  • Nine million items in stock
  • £100 million sales throughout Europe

OBJECTIVES

  • Ensure optimum customer service
  • Remove obstacle to future business growth
  • Reduce cost of warehouse operations 

SOLUTION

  • Integrated system designed to transport cartons to designated picking zones within a four-storey warehouse automatically and with minimal manual handling.
  • Completed orders automatically fed out to pack stations and despatch
  • System designed also for bulk stock replenishment

FEATURES

  • Maximum throughput 720 cartons/hour
  • Continuous conveyor loop for carton/order re-circulation
  • Designed for order-picking and replenishment functions
  • Wide variety of cartons and totes acceptable
  • Integrated carton erection, lidding and strapping
  • Elevators/lowerators minimise space usage
  • Automatic empty tote return function

A spur on the ground floor feeds replenishment stock in cartons of various sizes into the main system. To allow for the random-sized cartons received from suppliers, the conveyors are 550mm wide supported by 110mm deep x 30mm-wide aluminium extrusions on either side. The entire system is electrically powered, using state-of-the-art 24V motorised rollers that are particularly quiet, energy-efficient and durable.  It includes no pneumatic mechanisms, and minimal maintenance is required. The system is also very easy to adapt or extend.

The entire system is controlled by a single high-performance PLC with bespoke software specifically designed by Gebhardt-ECS to provide fully integrated automation with fast response times and high control standards. The PLC is linked to the client’s database server, and its processing speed and large memory allows large amounts of data to be transferred to it. The control system is also easy to use, with touch-screen panels allowing operators to obtain information about the conveyor system immediately at any time.

The main contractor with overall responsibility for fitting out the new warehouse was Jungheinrich UK. Design and installation of the conveyor system, including electrical installation, controls and integration, were undertaken entirely from the Gebhardt-ECS Nottingham office.

 
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